Everyone knows the trucking industry is governed by government rules and regulations. Most drivers are familiar with a long list of acronyms representing federal agencies such as DOT, FMCSA, EPA, FHWA and so on. The Federal Register Agency List currently contains a total of 457 agencies and subagencies.
What each agency does and how it creates, implements and enforces laws is a mystery to many — but it doesn’t have to be. It’s important that drivers understand their role in the rulemaking process and how to voice their opinions before rules that impact their work become effective. Agencies follow a prescribed process to enact rules and regulations, and every citizen should know how that process works.
Without agencies, Congress would need to pass a new law for every new rule or regulation. By delegating some authority to agencies, the Senate and House of Representatives can focus their efforts on legislation that impacts the entire nation.
Congress might not vote on rules issued by each agency, but they are involved just the same. The legislative branch of the government can (by vote) direct an agency to issue a specific rule or can impede a rule they don’t like by refusing to approve funding, or by passing legislation prohibiting implementation of the rule. The president can also direct an agency to take a specific action.
The Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (FMCSA) is the agency that has the biggest impact on the day-to-day operation of most drivers, but the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), among others, also issue rules that impact trucking.
Each agency is required to publish a “Regulatory Plan” each year and an “Agenda of Regulatory and Deregulatory Actions” twice a year. Together, these are often referred to as the “Unified Agenda.” Most of this information is published in the Federal Register. Any citizen can review these documents online to determine what progress has been made on current proposals and see what the agency plans to work on in the future.
The Federal Register can be accessed at federalregister.gov. The visitor can click on links for current issues, proposed or final rules, and other information, or enter a specific topic, like “Hours of Service,” in the search box. By clicking on the “Sign Up” button, the user can choose to receive a daily email showing any action taken on rules from each agency.
Those daily emails can be lengthy, but the agencies are listed in alphabetical order so that readers can scroll directly to the agencies they are interested in. For example, a driver might scroll directly to FHWA and then on to FMCSA.
The rulemaking process is straightforward.
The agency usually publishes an announcement that it has received a “Petition for Rulemaking” from a citizen or organization. When ready to move forward on a new rule or change to an existing one, the agency may publish an “Advanced Notice of Proposed Rulemaking” in the Federal Register.
Either notification may ask for public comment, usually specifying a time period for commenting and several methods for submitting statements. Comments can be submitted online, by mail and, in some cases, in person, if a “listening session” is held. In most cases, the time period for comments is 30 to 60 days. Everyone has the opportunity to state their view, and those comments become a part of the rulemaking process. Many comments are published in the Federal Register.
Unfortunately, while many proposed rules receive comments from advocacy groups and other organizations, individual drivers don’t often take advantage of their right to comment. Too often, those who are quick to criticize new regulations forego their chance to contribute to the process. Proposed rules are often revised or even withdrawn based on input received from the public.
The president can review each proposed rule and gets an assist from another agency, the Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs (OIRA). Costs and benefits of new rules are considered. Those that require the public to provide information to the government are also reviewed by OIRA, including an estimate of the paperwork burden and other considerations.
Based on the comments received, the agency can revise its proposed ruling, extend the comment period, schedule hearings or take other action. If the agency feels it has all the information it needs to make the ruling, a “Final Rule” is published in the Federal Register. An effective date is also published, usually at least 30 days in the future unless the agency can show good cause for the rule to be implemented sooner.
Agencies can publish a Final Rule without first publishing a Proposed Rule, but only when there is good cause that the comment process would be “impractical, unnecessary or contrary to the public interest.” Doing so, however, provides opponents of the rule with a cause to take to the courts and could harm the final implementation of the rule.
In some cases, agencies publish an “Interim Final Rule.” In this case, the rule goes into effect immediately, with the understanding that it can be revised or revoked based on public comments.
New rules must be sent to members of Congress and the Government Accountability Office (GAO) before they become effective. If rules are considered “major,” at least 60 days must be allowed for review before the rule become effective.
The House and Senate have the option of passing a “resolution of disapproval,” which is then signed (or vetoed) by the president. This is rarely done and has happened only once since 1996. Congress can also decide to hold hearings on the rule or withhold funding or they can simply pass a new law that supersedes the ruling.
Agencies sometimes issue “Interpretive Rules” that help explain to the public how a rule applies, but these may not change the rule itself.
Once a rule is issued, an individual or group may file suit to stop implementation. Courts determine if the agency has the authority to make the rule, was improperly issued or is unconstitutional.
Truck drivers are governed by a long list of regulations. Knowing how they are made and each individual’s role in creating them is both a right and a responsibility.
Cliff Abbott is an experienced commercial vehicle driver and owner-operator who still holds a CDL in his home state of Alabama. In nearly 40 years in trucking, he’s been an instructor and trainer and has managed safety and recruiting operations for several carriers. Having never lost his love of the road, Cliff has written a book and hundreds of songs and has been writing for The Trucker for more than a decade.